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Flight from Darkness

By Shawn Carman

Medinaat-al-Salaam, the Burning Sands&

The mad cries of ferocious beasts filled the air, joined by the tormented screams of their victims. The once beautiful city was now washed in fire and shadow.

Daidoji Uji crouched in the shadows that filled a narrow alley, allowing the rampaging beasts that roamed the streets to go by. They passed close enough for him to smell their foul stench, and to hear the clattering of their armored hides against the steel of their weapons. They were like ogres, tall and brutish things with long horns that curled from sloping brows. They carried wicked swords of black steel and called to one another in hideous metallic voices.

Had he come all this way for this? Had he traveled so many miles only to find hope for the future crushed once again? The Shogun had sent him across the Burning Sands to find allies against the Dark Emperor. Medinaat-al-Salaam was said to be the jewel of the desert, the hidden refuge of the Unicorn Clan who had fled from Rokugan during Fu Leng's early rule.

The only Unicorn Uji had found were already dead. The city was overrun with demons.

There was another clattering sound, louder this time. Uji swore inwardly. One of the beasts had returned, sniffing the air like a dog near the alley's entrance. It left its blade sheathed, but its talons were scratching anxiously at the air, the wall, the ground. The demon had his scent. It came closer, the wide-set horns on its head nearly scraping the walls as it panned back and forth, looking for its prey. Uji caught a glimpse of its red-golden eyes, burning with pain and intelligence. It drew ever closer, until finally it was far enough in that Uji could wait no longer.

The old Crane stepped out of the shadow so that the beast could see him. It snarled in a bizarre mixture of delight and rage and, just as he had seen the others do, it reared its head back to howl for its kin. Uji's arm snaked out suddenly, moving so fast it was difficult to see. One of his jade daggers buried itself deep in the creature's throat. It gurgled in pain and surprise, unable to make any noise, much less call to the others. Too late Uji sensed the two figures approaching behind him. He whirled with daggers in hand but they seemed unconcerned with his presence. They rushed forward, each seizing one of the beast's arms and pinning it, holding the demon against the wall such that it could not been seen from the alley's entrance. "Katamari!" one of the hulking men called. "Quickly!"

A man swathed in robes, his face obscured with a steel mask, stepped forward to inspect the captive. The creature snarled and snapped at him wordlessly, but Uji stepped in and held its head steady. "This will hurt, beast," Katamari said, and placed his hand upon the creature's sloping forehead. He spoke words of power in a language that Uij did not recognize. His hand glowed for the briefest moment, causing the beast to thrash violently. Then the glow was gone, and the beast crumpled to the floor.

The other man studied Uji cautiously. His face was wide, blunt, and ugly. His armor was bone white, the symbol of the Unicorn Clan emblazoned upon his chest.

"You wear the colors of a Crane, stranger," the man said in awkward Rokugani. "I thought all the Crane were dead."

"And I'd begun to think all the Unicorn were dead," Uji replied. "I am pleased we were both wrong. I am Daidoji Uji."

The man's eyes widened; he seemed to recognize the name. "The Iron Crane?" he asked. "Why would Daidoji Uji come to Medinaat-al-Salaam alone?"

Then the shadows shifted, and two men appeared behind the Khan. Each had a small bow drawn. Midoru and Jotaro, Hakumei's last and finest students. The Khan looked over his shoulder at the men, then back at Uji. He nodded in respect.

"The beast will live, Chagatai-sama," Katamari reported, looking up from the unconscious beast. "As long as we require him."

"Then let us hurry from this place before the Caliph finds us," Chagatai said. "Come with me, Uji-sama. We can speak more of why you are here once we find a way to escape this doomed city."

----------------

The Crane provinces, north of the Spine of the World Mountains

"This is surely punishment," Daidoji Kitagi muttered under his breath, his frustration and resentment obvious from his tone. The warrior batted aside a dangling tree branch irritably, continuing to scan the surroundings for anything unusual.

"Be quiet," his comrade insisted. "Akimasa will hear you."

"I have already heard his miserable complaining," whispered a voice from somewhere in front of them. "Yet I am certain young Kitagi does not desire the shame of my disapproval, and he knows how foolish he is." The senior scout emerged through the brush to face his two young assistants. "Naturally shame is the least of your worries, should the Bloodspeakers hear you. Your grumbling would quickly bring not only an end to your boredom, but an end to your life and ours as well."

Kakita Himatsu paled at the idea and glanced around the forest somewhat nervously. Kitagi said nothing, but inwardly he was sickened by his companion's obvious fear. The Bloodspeakers' recent attacks had been savage and unexpected. The Legions were spread thin in fighting all the chaos they had caused, both directly and indirectly. A small group of scouts such as this could be very vulnerable to Bloodspeaker cultists or even just a group of fearful, rioting peasants. But such things were nothing to engender such obvious fear in a Crane samurai. To battle such enemies was their purpose. Himatsu had been meant for a courtier's life, apparently.

Kitagi bowed his head. "Forgive me for complaining, sempai. I was thoughtless."

"Then be quiet," the older man said with a wry grin.

----------------

The term "safhouse" was only partially correct, in Uji's estimation. It was indeed a house, but hardly safe. Nowhere in the city was safe. Here, the Khan and the surviving leaders of the Unicorn Clan gathered while they planned their escape from the city.

Katamari's mood was grim. "I saw inside the creature's mind. There is much there we can use, and much that confirms our earlier fears. The Caliph has allied herself with Fu Leng. These creatures are his gift to her."

Chagatai sneered. "She has always been evil, but at least she was a lesser evil," he said in a low growl. "Why would she share power with the Ninth Kami?"

"Cowardice," Uji replied. "She saw a better chance of survival by capitulating to him than resisting."

"I agree," said Akasha, a slim woman with startling green eyes. "The Caliph has always feared death. To fight Fu Leng is death."

"Not for us," Chagatai replied. "Not yet."

Katamari continued to stare at the unconscious creature. "They are called Tsuno," he reported. "They were once travelers across the Spirit Realms, violent and vengeful creatures. When they saw Fu Leng poised to conquer the mortal realm, they resisted and were enslaved. Their evil nature made it simple enough for Fu Leng to corrupt them, and now he has offered them as a gift to the Caliph. She controls the Tsuno now, thousands of them. In return she has promised to exterminate the children of Shinjo."

There were dejected looks throughout the room. Uji recognized the dangerous look of those who had lost hope. "So we find a way to remove her control of these creatures," Uji said. "Not only would that harm her alliance with Fu Leng, but we may gain a powerful ally in these Tsuno."

A small smile curved Chagatai's mouth as he considered the possibility.

"I see a jewel in this creature's mind," Katamari said. "A thing of khadi magic. It has been enhanced by Fu Leng's power. It is what she uses to control the Tsuno, binding them through their connection to the Realm of Dreams."

"So we find the jewel," Uji said, "and destroy it."

"Not so simple," replied Moto Chen, one of the big nomads. "The Caliph would carry such a thing on her person. She is an immortal sorcerer, powerful beyond imagining. To confront her would only be slightly less foolish than challenging Fu Leng himself."

"To destroy the jewel would be dangerous in and of itself," Katamari said. "If it is so deeply connected to Yume-do that it can control an entire race of creatures, to destroy it might sunder the boundaries of the Spirit Realms. Such an act would scatter any and all who witnessed it across the Spirit Realms, likely to their deaths."

Uji folded his arms across his chest. "Even the Caliph?" he asked.

The Khan chuckled.

"I&" Katamari paused in thought. "Yes, I suppose it would. It may not kill her, but she would certainly be removed from this world."

"Then Fu Leng has done us a favor," the Khan said. "We can destroy her through his gift."

"I doubt it was unintentional," Uji said. "Fu Leng does not build friendships; he digs graves. If he cannot control the Caliph he will use us to destroy her."

"I say we take him up on the offer," the Khan said, "then flee this doomed city."

"A mad plan," Katamari said flatly. "Even if we survived an assault on the Caliph's palace and destroyed the jewel, those who made the assault would not survive."

"Then I volunteer," Uji said. "I am an old samurai. I have lived a long life. If I can buy the Unicorn their safety and destroy the Caliph, I will take this risk."

"I will go with him," Chen said eagerly.

"All I ask in reply is that you seek out the Shogun in the Ivory Kingdoms," Uji said, rising. "Let the sons and daughters of Rokugan stand together against the Dark Emperor."

Chagatai's brow furrowed. "The Moto will bow to no one."

"Then don't bow. I don't care," Uji said. "But you will help him. Are we agreed?"

The Unicorn glanced from one to another, none speaking. Finally, Chagatai nodded.

----------------

It was two hours later when Akimasa signaled for the others to stop. He had visibly tensed, signaling to Kitagi that something was wrong. The young man placed his hand on his blade and listened carefully for any sound. He could hear nothing at first, and then realized that this was the problem. He could literally hear nothing. There were no birds, no insects or natural sounds of any sort.

Kitagi signaled for Himatsu to remain where he was. The other scout nodded gratefully, drawing another inward wince from Kitagi. He stepped forward quickly and quietly, making no sound as he stepped to the senior scout's position. He waited there, knowing better than to break the silence.

"I feel something," Akimasa finally whispered. "Something& familiar."

"What is it?" Kitagi asked.

Akimasa shook his head. "I felt it once before, at the Battle of Oblivion's Gate. When the Gate opened, there was this sense of& of infinity. It was overwhelming, as if the realms beyond were pressing forward, threatening to invade my mind."

"Sensei?" Kitagi whispered, alarmed at Akimasa's voice.

"There," the scout pointed, his hand shaking slightly. He pointed to an empty clearing, a small region clear of the trees and boulders that covered the entire landscape. As Kitagi looked for any sign of what his sensei was pointing at, he too began to feel the pressure of something that he could not identify. "By the Fortunes," Akimasa whispered. "Can you feel it?"

"Yes," Kitagi said. And he could. There was a peculiar shimmering in the air where Akimasa pointed. There was nothing he could see for certain, but ever so often a shadow passed through the space, a hint of something moving just beyond his vision.

"A spirit passage," Akimasa whispered.

----------------

The Caliph's palace had been well guarded, but not well enough. The battle had been savage, but the Caliph had not been expecting a frontal assault by an enemy she considered all but defeated. While the greater part of their forces delayed the Tsuno and the palace guards, Chen and six others burst into the Caliph's quarters. Midoru, Jotaro, the Khan's cousin Chen, his wife Akasha, a grizzled old warrior named Kumari, and a young Battle Maiden by the name of Tarako. The seven of them, mere mortals against a sorceress whose power rivaled gods.

Uji had seen this drama played out before. He hoped the ending was more satisfying this time.

They stormed the throne room without hesitation. Six guards lay dead before they reacted to their entrance. The Caliph looked up from her throne. She was a young woman, though the eyes behind her veil seethed with the power of eternity. She rose with a sweeping gesture, and fire cascaded through the air. Jotaro leapt into Uji's path without hesitation and was reduced to ashes.

More guards surrounded them, wielding scimitars and screaming the Caliph's name. Moto Chen's howl of rage as Akasha fell to their blades was unlike any sound Uji had heard before. As the Unicorn turned to engage the guards, Uji and Midoru ran directly toward the throne. Midoru was quicker, striking at the Caliph with his katana. The blow staggered her but seemed to do no real harm. She seized the ninja's throat with an incredibly swift movement and snapped his neck. She turned to Uji, who now held his jade daggers at the ready. He lunged at her with both blades, but she caught one in each hand. The knives bit deep into her flesh; she did not even wince in pain.

"Defiance earns you nothing but death, samurai" she said with a smile. Green fire blazed in her eyes, reflected by the jewel that hung about her throat.

"Then share it with me," Uji said. He lunged forward, bringing the crest of his helmet down hard upon the jewel she wore.

The throne room was consumed in brilliant fire.

----------------

It took the three scouts some time to determine roughly where the passage's borders were. They had to exercise caution, lest they inadvertently pass through it into some unknown realm beyond Ningen-do. Akimasa made the decision to return for reinforcements to secure the passage, and to study it. To Kitagi's surprise, Himatsu had objected, insisting that the passage must remain guarded. He had volunteered to remain behind. If Akimasa had been as surprised as Kitagi, he did not show it. The senior scout considered the matter for a few moments, then agreed and ordered Kitagi to remain as well. Two scouts would be better; if something were to emerge from the passage one could follow while the other returned to report. It would take Akimasa at least a full day to return with more men, assuming that they were available as soon as he arrived and that he did not rest on the trip. Kitagi was certain he would not.

It was several hours before Himatsu finally broke the silence. "Where do you suppose it leads?" he asked quietly.

Kitagi shook his head. "It could lead anywhere."

"Perhaps it leads to Yomi, the Realm of Blessed Ancestors." Himatsu sighed. "My mother dwells there. I do not remember her; she passed away long ago." He turned to Kitagi. "What of your father? He died a hero, did he not?"

"At Oblivion's Gate," Kitagi said solemnly. "His body was not recovered."

"Oh," Himatsu said quietly. "I did not know that."

"I do not speak of it," the older man returned. "I do not know if anything became of him& after his death."

"To die in the Shadowlands is a terrible fate," Himatsu said. "Surely the Crab would have found and buried his body before&"

"Before the dark power of Jigoku returned him to life?" Kitagi asked with a bitter expression. "I hope for the best as well, but I do not truly know if my father's soul resides in Yomi."

"I am sorry," Himatsu said. "I did not mean to trouble you."

"I could discover the truth now," Kitagi licked his lips nervously. "I could know, if I wished. The means to do so lies before us, the gateway to realms beyond"

Himatsu's expression was one of alarm. "Kitagi, no! You heard Akimasa's orders! He will return with more men in only a day's time. Our duty&"

"Our duty need not be compromised," Kitagi said. "You can remain here. Either I will enter and return with good news, or I will never return, in which case my fate will be sealed, you will know the passage is dangerous, and I will find atonement in the next life. Either way, I will have the answer I have always sought." He paused for a moment. "I must go in. I must know if my father's soul escaped damnation."

"By risking your own?" Himatsu asked.

"If that is what it takes," Kitagi answered.

"I cannot allow you to go alone," Himatsu said. His tone was final. "We go together." He grinned. "A scout never abandons his leader."

Kitagi smiled nervously and nodded. He drew a deep breath, and took a step toward the passage.

----------------

The spirit realms

Passing between worlds was not a sensation that any mortal being was meant to experience. The border between realms was thin in some places, to be sure, but each living thing had an intended place, and was not intended to wander. The pure energy that separated the realms could tear a man apart, or at the very least destroy his mind.

When Kitagi came to his senses, he was standing in a gray field. He had no idea where he was, nor how long he had stood there before he realized what was happening. The field was vast and empty, and a thick fog obscured all but the most prominent features. Kitagi blinked repeatedly, trying to clear the haze from his mind. He glanced around, and made out a lone figure sitting in the grass some distance away. He wandered over, trying to remember how he had arrived at this place. It seemed to take far longer than it should, but in a moment, he reached the figure. It was Himatsu, sitting in the grass with the same blank expression.

"Konnichiwa," Kitagi said absently.

Himatsu looked up, his expression equally blank. "It worked," he said with a blissful smile. "I cannot hear him anymore," he whispered. "He is gone. The voice has stopped." Himatsu began to laugh, the sound taking an eerie tone as it returned across the empty plains.

Kitagi frowned, confused. "What do you mean? Whose voice"

Himatsu's laughter faded to be replaced by hoofbeats, soft at first, then louder, like approaching thunder, until they seemed to be all around the two Crane. It continued for so long that Kitagi wondered if it was something in his mind, and then they stopped abruptly. Softer steps, the steps of a man, followed. They, too, seemed to echo all around, until finally they stopped and a figure stood in the thickest part of the fog. Only an outline was visible, but it was clearly a bushi. "You do not belong here," a man's voice said plainly.

"I am sorry," Kitagi said. "We are& travelers."

"Travelers?" the man said, sounding annoyed. "You do not belong here. This place is not meant for the living. Why have you come?"

"I seek my father's fate," Kitagi answered. "His name was Daidoji Yoshimaru. He perished in battle at Oblivion's Gate, but his body was not recovered. I only wish to know what became of him."

"Arrogance," the man snapped. "You endanger the fragile balance of this place with your presence. You cannot remain. I will guide you to the passage through which you entered. Where is the other?"

"I will not leave," Himatsu said forcefully.

The man turned to regard the young scout impassively, his face completely without expression. "Idiot," he snapped.

"Forgive Himatsu," Kitagi said. He looked at the man pleadingly. "I only wish to know of my father. Can you not understand the need to know of your family's fate?"

There was a flicker of sympathy in the man's eyes. "Very well then," he said, his voice softer. He gestured wide, the sweep of his hand taking in the countryside. "The answer you seek lies here, in Maigo no Musha, the Realm of Thwarted Destiny. You may not find the answer to your liking, but it is here. Are you prepared to deal with the truth?"

"Yes," Kitagi said at once. "Yes, I am ready."

The man nodded. "Then we must hurry."

----------------

Sometime later, the three men stood on a cliff overlooking yet another in a series of vast, empty plains. Kitagi was uncertain how they arrived here, or how long it had taken to reach this place. Something about the realm caused time to blend together, leaving him with a blank and empty feeling.

Himatsu pointed down into the plain, where an army marched silently across the colorless grass. "Who are they?"

"The Legion of the Dead," their guide answered. "They keep this place safe from those who would usurp its purpose."

"Usurp it?" Kitagi frowned. "How is that possible?"

"This realm is young," the man answered. "Spirit Realms are places of limitless potential, and this one's potential is still not yet fully realized. There are those who would seize its power for themselves, twist it to their perverse desires. There was a war here, and many souls of long dead heroes came to defend this place. Most returned whence they came but there were others, like me, who preferred it here. They have remained to ensure that Maigo no Musha is safe from outsiders." He turned to look at the two men somewhat accusingly. "Outsiders like yourselves."

"We mean you no harm," Kitagi insisted.

"That doesn't prevent you from doing harm," the man said. "That is why you must leave."

"What does this Legion have to do with my father?" Kitagi asked.

"This Realm is a place for those whose fate was denied," the guide answered. "It is now home to many whose names are remembered by history, some heroes and some villains. Shoju, Satsu, Hiroru, Imura& Even some Nezumi, creatures of memory created by their shamans to protect this place. they are the strongest." He turned to Kitagi. "Your father is among them."

"My father?" Kitagi paled. "His destiny was thwarted?"

"Oblivion's Gate was never meant to be opened," the guide explained. "He was never meant to die there. He was meant for something greater, and thus his soul was cast here. Now, he protects Maigo no Musha, like the others. He has no place elsewhere."

"May I speak with him?" Kitagi's voice was little more than a whisper.

"No," the guide answered. "He would likely not remember you in any event. His place is here now. Yours is not. Now you have your answers. It is time for you to go."

"What is that?" Kitagi pointed to a cliff across the gulf, where what appeared to be lightning was flashing violently. "I have seen nothing like that since we entered the passage."

The guide frowned. "Others have entered, others who do not belong." He turned to the two Crane accusingly. "Your presence here weakens our boundaries. The balance is delicate as it is. You must leave." He looked back with an annoyed scowl.

"So you mean no harm?" he asked suspiciously.

Kitagi looked at the man in surprise, then realized what he meant.

Himatsu was gone.

----------------

"Stay back," Himatsu growled, holding his katana at the ready. "I am not going back."

It had not taken long for Kitagi and his strange guide to track down his missing comrade. Himatsu had taken refuge in a narrow gorge. Now he stared them both down with a mad expression, holding his sword with trembling hands.

"Do you think you can harm me with that sword?" the guide asked, looking at the weapon curiously.

"This is no ordinary blade," Himatsu snapped. "This sword was tempered with Bloodspeaker magic. It might kill even you, spirit."

The guide sighed, seeming more annoyed than frightened by the boast.

"Himatsu, what are you talking about?" Kitagi demanded. "We have to leave here."

"No!" Himatsu snapped. "Something about this place& even being near the passage& Iuchiban could not drive me mad as he did all the others. He could not make me throw my life away. It does not matter whether I return to Rokugan or hide here, I am doomed either way."

"You were a Bloodspeaker?" Kitagi asked, sneering in disgust. He drew his own blade, but his guide held out a restraining hand.

"I am not certain what would happen if a mortal died in this place," he said. "Be cautious."

"So what if I was a Bloodspeaker?" Himatsu demanded. "I sought to master true power rather than waste my life mewling over questions I could not answer as you did. Which of us is the better man?"

"This is the most pathetic thing I have seen in some time," said the voice of another man.

They all turned to see a man in the battered blue armor of a Crane, his face covered by an iron mempo. Though his armor was that of a samurai, he wore no swords, only twin knives at his hips.

"One of your Legion of the Dead?" Himatsu said as the man advanced toward him. "Stay back, spirit, or we shall see if the dead can die."

The man kept walking. Himatsu lunged at him with his sword, a deft and perfect stroke that the strange Crane dodged by stepping quickly to one side. He seized Himatsu's wrist and twisted, snapping it with an audible crack. He drew a dagger from the young man's hand and plunged it into his stomach, then dropped Himatsu unceremoniously on the grass.

"What have you done?" the guide demanded.

"Don't worry," the Crane said, still standing over the groaning Himatsu. "He will not die for a long time." He looked back at the guide and his eyes narrowed. "I know you," he said slowly. "The ogre slayer. One of the ronin who rode with Toturi. You died years ago, reclaiming your family's sword. And you&" He looked at Kitagi suspiciously. "You wear the armor of the Crane Clan, but there are no other Crane but me."

"Daidoji Uji," the guide said simply. "Yet not." The guide closed his eyes.

Kitagi turned to the guide. "How can this man be Uji? Daidoji Uji died decades ago! What trickery is this?"

"I warned you of the dangers if you remained here," the guide replied. "All of you must return to the mortal realm at once."

"So be it," Uji said with a sneer. "There is much work left to do if the Dark Emperor is to be defeated. The Shogun will need my aid. Send us back to Rokugan."

"I will," the guide replied, "though I fear it will not be the Rokugan you knew. I do not know what brand of magic propelled you here from the realm of nightmares where you once lived, but I cannot return you there. In the Rokugan we know, there is no Dark Emperor. Fu Leng was defeated on the Day of Thunder, and the children of Toturi now rule. That is the world to which you must return."

Uji slowly removed his helmet. His aged face was drained of all color, his eyes weary and hopeless. "I cannot return to my true home?" he asked.

"I fear not," the guide said.

"A world where Fu Leng never ruled," Uji said bitterly. "I am damned to paradise while my friends fight on in a world without hope."

"Your world has hope in abundance," the guide replied. "It is renewed each day with sacrifices such as yours."

Uji nodded slowly. He turned to Kitagi, an inquisitive look in his eye. "The Bloodspeaker mentioned Kaneka. Did he speak of Toturi's son?"

"The Shogun, yes," Kitagi answered absently. "He holds power in the Imperial City."

"I see," the old Crane said. He glared at the guide. "Then we shall see what this new world has to offer." He gestured at Kitagi. "And you will show me this paradise world, boy. I would meet your Shogun. Let us see what your people have made of the Empire my people failed to protect."

"Follow me," the guide said, "and take the dying Bloodspeaker with you, please."

The guide led them off across the plains, back toward Rokugan.


 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!